May 16 2012 2:30pm

Graphic Alchemy: The Evolution of the Comic Book Movie

Graphic Alchemy: The Evolution of the Comic Book MovieThe comic book movie used to be a laugh, B-list fodder meant for the five-dollar bin at the local convenience store and mentioned in the same breath as the dreaded video game film. The nineties were littered with poor excuses for comic film adaptations like Spawn, Steel, and Judge Dredd. Every once in a while, a diamond in the rough would poke it’s head out and remind us that good work could be done like Christopher Reeves’ Superman and Tim Burton’s gothic Batman. But overall, most of the movies were a cringe-fest hit or miss mess that plagued comic fans and non-geeks alike.

Then, somewhere along the line, comic book films started to suck a lot less. Sure, we’d get our horrible adaptations — everyone shudder with me as we consider Nic Cage’s multiple disastrous Ghost Riders. But Hollywood started to notice that if the right combination of factors came together, they could create a comic book gold mine. So what shifted? How did some studios get it right where others went horrifically wrong? Let’s take a look at some issues with comic book films and see how our favorites like The Dark Knight and The Avengers got things right. 


Sometimes, Hollywood Just Doesn’t Get It

Comic book films come with a lot of baggage. An adaptation often involves a lot of information about the character’s origins, its universe and the heroes and baddies of the piece. While that’s a lot to manage, the film also has to pay homage to the original mood of the adapted comic. The adaptation has to strike the correct balance of fresh visual exploration of the material while still bringing along old fans by making them feel right at home with the themes of the original comic. If the tone of the original work isn’t translated, the comic movie can feel way off mark. It might be a decent film, but it won’t feel close to the original comic book. What’s a Batman movie without the brooding depth, the darkness and lost parent issues? Where’s Spider-Man without the eternal optimism and “great responsibility” routine? Without these elements, the movie comes off feeling out of touch with its roots.

Graphic Alchemy: The Evolution of the Comic Book Movie

One perfect example of this mood-miss is the aforementioned Daredevil film and it’s equally disastrous spin-off film, Elektra. Daredevil is a complex character whose story has had many different writers at the helm. Yet when the film decided to deal with the story of Daredevil’s origin mixed with the grittier story of the master assassin/love interest character Elektra, the mood of the film got hopelessly muddled. Hollywood lost track of the dark aspects of the Elektra storyline in favor of a slick, spandex version of Daredevil in Ben Affleck and missed the darkness and loss at the heart of the “death of Elektra” story. That total disconnection from the source material continued in Jennifer Garner’s solo Elektra. The leading lady as written had no depth because the original subject material’s integrity wasn’t respected — they treated Elektra as a superhero rather than the complex killer she’s written to be. Other good examples of films so horribly off tone are b-list cringers like The Spirit (too tongue in cheek) and Judge Dredd (not gritty enough)


Why Rewrite a Classic?

Another issue in comic films is the rewrite process. Hollywood is notorious for taking something that works and twisting it around with “fresh” rewrites. Comic book films have tried rewrites to streamline overly complex story lines and origins. But there are some which have suffered massive overhauls that changed the fundamental story so severely that it was nigh unrecognizable to the original work. Bearing in mind that the original work was what would bring fans to a comic book movie in the first place, these huge rewrites make the films unrecognizable and almost always unpalatable.

The frightful example of this is the nigh unwatchable Halle Berry nightmare Catwoman. The creators of this travesty shredded the original character of Catwoman like they shredded most of Berry’s costume. What they made was nowhere near anything that Catwoman fans might have recognized. The origin story changed from lady thief to a supernaturally created lady thief with a “cat-powered archetype” story that was so hokey as to be unbelievable and unnecessary. The audience came to see Catwoman — why not give them what they came for? Another example was the quickly murdered Wonder Woman pilot for television, which took the Amazonian princess and made her a corporate woman out to crime fight in her spare time, an Ally McBeal knock-off in a Halloween costume. Once again, creators lost sight of their original source material in the rush to rewrite what had originally made the name behind the film a classic. Other honorable mentions for bad choices in the rewrite of Watchmen’s big climactic ending and the rewrite of Doctor Doom as a villain in the Fantastic Four.


Sequels are A Great Idea, Right?

It’s difficult to make quality sequels. Unless you’re Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II, it’s difficult not to create an inferior product the second or third time around. Yet comic book movies like X2 and Blade 2 have honored what came before them with great follow-up films. I use these two franchises as examples, however, because what came after these great sequels are two disastrous creations that tried really hard to deliver and flunked passing grades by far. X-Men: The Last Stand and Blade Trinity are two examples of films that didn’t follow the good practices set by the original films and instead get lazy, or overly complex, in favor of trying “something new.”

The Batman films of the 90’s are a wonderful example of this problem. Tim Burton presented fans with a dark and twisted Gotham City and a brooding Batman in the form of Michael Keaton opposite Jack Nicholson’s The Joker. He then followed that up with an equally twisted Batman Returns featuring The Penguin and Catwoman, with both films feeling like a coherent universe. What came next, however, went right off the rails into psychedelic territory with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Sure, it was a new director and a new vision, but fans had embraced the darker Bat of Burton’s world and what came after threw the entire franchise off a bridge into day-glo paint and wacky Jim Carrey hijinx. Another classic example of this is the classic Superman films, which go progressively stranger from Superman 1 and 2 into the weirdness of  Superman 3. A super computer? Richard Pryor? What a mess. Or how about Spider-Man 3 and the Peter Parker dance number that put the final nail in the Toby Maguire Spidey run? The only way to rescue these franchises have been by wielding the mighty power of reboot, for mixed results.


Reboots, Retellings and Rescues: The New Comic Films

From the ashes of these failed former films, a new breed of comic film has arisen. Careful creative folks with an eye for tone, consistency, good filmmaking and fan-care have taken up the flag of new comic lines and those previously murdered by bad production. X-Men: First Class revamped the X-Men franchise after it’s descent into The Last Stand. Marvel picked up Captain America from where he’d been left in terrible made-for-TV movies and gave him his own wonderful film that lead us into the stunning success of The Avengers. And Christopher Nolan bid fans forget about batsuits with nipples on them in favor of his carefully crafted Dark Knight. It’s hard not to see these directors as careful craftsman, viewing what went wrong before and improving upon those mistakes for the future. 

And in the process, going from this...

Graphic Alchemy: The Evolution of the Comic Book Movie this.

Graphic Alchemy: The Evolution of the Comic Book Movie

It’s hard not to see the improvement.

Sure, there have been hits and misses. The Superman retelling didn’t quite save the Man of Steel from a bad movie and Nicholas Cage just can’t quite get past having a horrible Ghost Rider movie, no matter how many times he tries. There are misses galore with tone in Green Lantern due to what can only be called poor filmmaking choices all around. But the trend overall seems to be heading towards creative, careful comic book films that know the formula for success and honor the fandoms they come from. And the success can be charted at the box office, in full theaters and packed midnight showings, not to mention Academy Award nominations.

This is a glorious time to be a comic book fan. Comic geeks can watch their heroes taken to the screen by trustworthy creators who give it their all to provide glorious, epic and well-thought out creations that respect their fandoms. Stay tuned to the silver screen, my comic geek brethren, it’s a great time to go to the movies. 

Who knows? If they keep trying, maybe they’ll even get The Fantastic Four right. They say reboots the charm, after all. 

Except for Ghost Rider. Sorry Nic Cage, I don’t know what might save that.

Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and

Improbable Joe
1. Improbable Joe
I can't complain about the rewrite of the ending of Watchmen... it streamlined a couple of more complex plot elements without losing the point of the story as a whole.
Improbable Joe
2. wizard clip
As Shoshana points out, respect for the source material (and the audience) is key. There seem to be many long-time comics fans among this current generation of writers and directors, which helps tremendously.

I'd quibble with labelling Reeve's Superman and Burton's Batman as "diamonds in the rough." When these films were made, there was no "rough" for them to poke their heads out of. They were the ones that set the standard for the modern superhero film, which so many other films failed to live up to.

I'm afraid I'd also list Superman II among the stinkers. Yes, General Zod is great ("Kneel before Zod!"), and the movie has its high points, but on balance there are just too many gaps in its internal logic. I could almost forgive the arbitrary and inconsistent array of superpowers displayed by Superman and the 3 Kryptonian villains, the illogic of their abiblity to speak English, the kid in the Texas invasion sequence with the mysterious british accent, etc, but I just can't get past what may be one of the biggest cop-outs in movie history: the magic amnesia kiss that obliterates Lois's knowledge of Supe's secret identity.

Hey, you didn't mention The Incredibles. I know it's not an adaptation, but it may be the best superhero movie to date (I haven't yet seen the Avengers).
Improbable Joe
3. sabbx
The improvement in the quality of the movies isn't a huge mystery. Bigger budgets, better writers... The real breakthrough is that Hollywood finally grasped the concept that both dedidcated and casual fans grew up reading and loving these characters. There is a ready made auidence for almost evey established super-heroic character out there. Plus, with Supes, Bats, WW, Spidey, the X-men- the established mainstream- there is literally decades of prior backstory to dig into. The INABILITY to make good films about these topics should be the head-scratcher. (even Ghost Rider)

@ wizard clip-Check out the directors cut of "Superman II" if you haven't already. This version handles a lot of the issues you mentioned a lot more proficeiently than the wide-release version. Shame it took 25 years to get to the public...
Improbable Joe
4. wizard clip
Thanks, Sabbx, for reminding me that Donner's cut of Superman II is out there. I've been meaning to check it out for a while now.

I also must humbly kneel before Zod for criticizing his ability to speak english when, apparently, I can't spell in my native tongue ("abiblity").
Emmet O'Brien
5. EmmetAOBrien
I've got to stand up for the first Ghost Rider - it's a tonally consistent B-movie that knows what it's trying to do and delivers on that, with Nicolas Cage playing to his strengths, good supporting cast, and all the flaming skeletonage one could want.

Second one, otoh, definitely best forgotten.

And Watchmen is so close to perfect that the ways in which it isn't drive me batty. (I do not object to the changed ending. I object muchly to removing Adrian Veidt's moments of doubt, and to depicting Dr. Manhattan at war using Freddy-Krueger-type showers of viscera rather than the clean and much more existentially terrifying dematerialisations in the original text; "God exists and He's American" fits so much better with the latter. I am also a long way from certain that upping the violence of Dan and Laurie's first knothead fight while making the second so cinematic works, particularly as it narrows the gap between them and Rorschach.)
Improbable Joe
6. AlBrown
It is going to be hard to remember how many people thought Disney had made a poor decision in purchasing Marvel, and setting out to make the series of movies that led up to The Avengers. At the time, people thought that, with the "A list" Marvel heros (Spiderman, FF, X-Men) already leased out to other studios, that there was little to be gained by making movies about the "B list" heros. How wrong they were.
I'm glad that "wizard clip" brought up The Incredibles. Great superhero movie, and I think the infusion of Pixar talent into Disney's movie group, and the sensibilities they brought with them, are a large reason for success of the current crop of movies.
And in a world where everyone has become enamored of trailers, what can be better than a series where each movie functions as a trailer for the next movie!
Ashe Armstrong
7. AsheSaoirse
The Ghost Rider movie should've been about Sam Elliott's character. THAT would've been amazing. And a weird western. And there's a lack of good weird westerns, even after Cowboys & Aliens.

Also, Superman Returns was a freaking sequel. Sure, it had that reboot shine, but it was a sequel. And I hated that from day one.

X3 did a lot of good things as far as "comic book movie" go. But the writing and the story were crap. First Class wasn't amazing but in a lot of ways, it was a step up from X3.

In retrospect, the Spider-Man movies were destined to go sour. After the third came out, it caused me to re-evaluate the series as a whole and it came down to this: Raimi was the right choice visually speaking, but for everything else, it was all wrong. What do I mean? I'll tell you. First thing, Peter has almost no personality except the outline of a lovesick nerd who also happens to be a photographer. He doesn't even really strike me as a nerd or socially inept, especially considering who his best friend is. Toby LOOKS like Peter, but he sounds like generic nerd turned hero #23. There's no wit or sarcasm. Secondly, no web shooters. Why? Why why why why why? I mean, outside of them being COOL, they're part of a very important component to who Peter/Spider-Man is. He's a scientist at heart. Thirdly, too much camp. Just...too much. After that, it gets into specific things for each movie and the third film is just its own whole topic since it was two films trying to coexist at the same time and I believe Raimi always hated Venom and the symbiote.

I'm sure I'll get some hate for this but the Nolan movies aren't as amazing as they get credit for. Two major characters have been whitewashed now (Ra's and Bane) for instance. The Dark Knight has some major issues in the way some of the characters interact. Especially when you get down to Joker being captured and the way Bruce does it. And sadly, Bruce/Batman isn't interesting in the Nolan movies. He's just a guy in a suit. He's not the world's greatest detective or any of that. Compared to the Joker, he's boring. And the Joker...I love the Joker in TDK but he's not really the Joker. Then again, Mark Hamill spoiled me.

I think with the major characters, we know their origins already. They're pop culture. Filmmakers could really take a cue from a couple of the graphic novels that turn the origins into a quick two page summary (Superman: Birthright did this fantastically). The 2008 Hulk actually did this in nicely in the credits and we got right into things. Imagine if Nolan had skipped Batman Begins, and instead gone right into the meat of the story of Batman vs. the League of Assassins. The lesser known heroes, okay. Iron Man did a beautiful job of it. Thor was great. Never did see Captain America and still haven't seen the Avengers but yeah, there ya go.
Bruce Arthurs
8. bruce-arthurs
"Other honorable mentions for bad choices in the rewrite of Watchmen’s big climactic ending and the rewrite of Doctor Doom as a villain in the Fantastic Four."

Say what? The problem with Fantastic Four was that the Doctor Doom portrayed there was barely a villain at all, compared to the original.

I read Doctor Doom's first appearance in FF off the drugstore spinner rack back in the early 60's. He was not only a MEGALOMANIAC and a MAD SCIENTIST, he was also the friggin' DICTATOR of an entire country! For bonus points, he was also obsessed with one-upping his old school rival Reed Richards, and kinda stalkerish where Sue Storm was concerned. The movie Doom took all that and dialed it down to 2.
Improbable Joe
9. Niki Yarte
Very enlightening, though I'll have to disagree with your view on Watchmen. The bomb essentially played the same role as the squid, which in my opinion would've been really distracting and confusing to see onscreen.
Sky Thibedeau
10. SkylarkThibedeau
Fantastic 4 1&2 and Spiderman 3 were a unauthorized bio financed by J Jonah Jameson of the new York tabloid The Daily Bugle. That can be the Only explanation.

Dr. Doom was not THE Victor Von Doom, they confused him with the Villain from Girl Genius. I didn't buy into Jessica Alba as Sue nor the Commish as Ben. And Galactus was a freaking Cloud for goodness sake. What were the writers thinking?

Emo Peter and Gwen Stacy? They should have introduced her in the first movie. Better still Pete and Betty in 1, Pete and Gwen in 2, and Pete and MJ in 2. They should not have killed off Goblin and Doc Ock. I want to see the Sinister 6.

The best part of the whole series was the trailer for Silver Surfer.
James Whitehead
11. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
Have to say I liked Spiderman 3. Especially Thomas Hayden Church as Sandman; Church portrayed the hopelessness of his life perfectly. You saw the crushing sadness in his face & body that you felt sad for him. I didn't, however, enjoy the danse macabre between Peter & 'Gwen' much at all.

Superman II was fun for me but as I was twelve, I can't say I noticed any of the supposed 'flaws;' particularly how Zod & the others spoke english. Kinda figured they 'learned' it somehow and I can't say I wanted either a created language (Hello Jar-Jar Binks) or the villains taking screen time to visit professor Higgins.

The X-Men movies were good but I couldn't forgive them turning one of my favourite X-Men, Cyclops, into such an utter one-dimensional tool just to make Wolverine even more 'uber-cool.'

All in all, however, I do have to agree that this is the 'golden-age' for us comic book fanboys & fangirls.

Improbable Joe
12. Wizard Clip
@Kato: I was likewise young when I first saw Superman II. I mostly liked it then. Most of my criticisms come from repeat viewings over the years, although I always hated the ending and the campiness. The scene where Clark walks into the street and is struck by a car, leaving the imprint of his legs in its bumper stands out. Is he Superman or Herman Munster?

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